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                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #115     A Publication of The Nature Institute     December 21, 2000
              Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NetFuture is a reader-supported publication.
    Editor's Note
    Quotes and Provocations
       Technology and Human Responsibility
       Bill Gates' New Concerns
    Tech Knowledge Revue (Langdon Winner)
       Confronting the Culture of Disrespect
       Where's Your Action Plan? (William Bostock Hackett III)
    Announcements and Resources
       Computers and Children: Request for Grant Proposals
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    Last autumn I mentioned that NetFuture would be carrying a response by
    Mark Pesce to my criticism of his "earth toy" proposal ("Mark Pesce's
    Earth Toy" in NF #107).  I am disappointed to report that some time ago,
    after drafting part of his response, Mark decided not to proceed.  It was
    not because of any restrictions on NetFuture's side (there were none); he
    simply indicated that he felt it was better "to let matters rest where
    they are".  He also mentioned that his book, The Playful World: How
    Technology is Transforming Our Imagination, is now available and
    speaks for itself.
    It is not my first abortive effort to enlist a technology-savvy critic to
    respond to points of view presented in NetFuture.  I'm not sure what the
    problem is, but I'll be looking for further opportunities.
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                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Technology and Human Responsibility
    Thanks to science and technology, many in the West today are gripped by a
    sense of unlimited potential, as if nothing lay altogether beyond the
    reach of mankind.  I think there's truth in this.  In principle, and over
    the long term, we can -- and will -- achieve whatever we aim at with
    heart, mind, and will.
    Leave aside for the moment the fact that some of the things we strive for,
    such as machine-enhanced, superhuman intelligence, will present us with a
    horribly contracted, if still powerfully coercive, reality due to our
    flawed understanding of what we are aiming at.  What puzzles me is that
    the sense of wide-open possibility leads many -- and especially, if I'm
    not mistaken, those who work with computers -- to feel only a boundless
    hope and exhilaration, untethered by any weight of responsibility.  Yet
    the truth remains:  our moral responsibility is coextensive with the
    effective reach of our understanding.  When we can achieve just about
    anything, we become responsible for just about everything.
    Even where we see the most visible effort to assume accountability for the
    use of digital technologies, the main concern -- as in the struggles over
    online privacy and censorship -- is to make sure no one tramples on our
    rights and freedoms.  It is hard to find any corresponding preoccupation
    with the difficulty of exercising those rights and freedoms well.
    Likewise, the tidal wave of consumer information about new gadgets served
    up in the technology sections of newspapers and magazines is all about the
    neat things we can do with the gadgets, and very little about the broader
    implications of the doing, or what they can do to us.
    I am glad there are those who have taken up the issues of privacy and
    censorship (though not at all glad that the vigorous promotion of gadgetry
    is now seen as a first-order duty of journalists).  But I can't help
    wondering, at the conclusion of this fifth year of NetFuture's existence,
    how one could make the theme of "technology and human responsibility"
    (NetFuture's subtitle) real to a wider public.
    In many ways I feel I have failed with NetFuture.  William Hackett's
    letter in this issue, complaining about the lack of positivity in the
    newsletter, has some validity, despite my defensive response.
    Where in our society do we find the engagement with technology made
    into a matter of deeply felt personal and social responsibility?  I
    suspect I miss a great deal for lack of diligent looking, if not also for
    a jaundiced eye.  I would be happy to hear your own testimonies in the
    Bill Gates' New Concerns
    Give Bill Gates all due credit.  He has created quite a stir (and dismayed
    some of his CEO colleagues) by telling audiences that "the world's poorest
    two billion people desperately need health care, not laptops".  If you
    ship computers to the Third World, he adds,
       Mothers are going to walk right up to that computer and say, "My
       children are dying; what can you do?"  They're not going to sit there
       and, like, browse eBay or something.  What they want is for their
       children to live.  Do you really have to put in computers to figure
       that out?
    Gates has now committed two-thirds of his foundation's largesse to Third
    World health care and the development and distribution of vaccines.
    One of the salient facts about the globalizing culture of high tech,
    symbolized by the increasingly monocultural Silicon Valley, is its
    remarkable provincialism.  It's a provincialism akin to that of the
    interstate highway traveler and the air traveler:  the culture of highway
    rest stops and airport shops is "global" in only the thinnest of senses,
    its primary function being to conceal the cultures of the globe rather
    than to engage or cultivate them.  This function is carried to a new
    extreme by the almost solipsistic isolation and immobility of the
    cybertraveler, which can be compensated for only through an intense (and
    often foregone) inner effort to reach out imaginatively and
    What has led Gates to break through some of the provincialism of the high-
    tech culture appears to have been his responsibility (shared with his
    wife, Melinda) for billions of philanthropic dollars.  One naturally
    begins to ask how these dollars can make a real and important difference,
    and Gates confesses to having been "naive -- very naive" when he began
    giving his fortune away several years ago.
    Many of Gates' high-tech counterparts argue that he is still naive,
    unnecessarily opposing computers to health care.  Says John Gage, chief
    research officer at Sun Microsystems:
       After listening to three days of serious analysis and work [at a
       conference on computers and the Third World, where Gates spoke], and
       then to have Gates rather flippantly say, "You've got to have clean
       water and food" -- that wasn't exactly furthering the point of the
       entire meeting.
    NetDay, the charity Gage runs, is devoted to wiring the world's classrooms
    to the Internet.
    I don't doubt that Gates is still rather naive in his understanding of the
    issues technology poses for society.  But to dismiss his remarks as
    "flippant" when they offer a corrective for the massive misdirection of
    hundreds of billions of dollars by an industry chronically incapable of
    transcending its extreme parochialism, and when they also offer what must
    be a painful acknowledgment of his own past foolishness -- well, that's a
    strange definition of "flippant".
    But there's good reason for Gates' colleagues to worry about his new-found
    sense of social responsibility.  If this kind of citizenship should
    somehow breach the corporation's formidable defenses and gain a foothold
    within the walls -- who knows what mischief might follow?
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                                  Langdon Winner
                                                          TECH KNOWLEDGE REVUE
                                                       2.3   December 21, 2000
    Two features of contemporary American life may seem entirely unconnected,
    but on closer inspection they stand out as dimensions of the same
    unsettling pattern.
    One is an all-too-familiar disposition in human relationships, an attitude
    about how to treat people that strongly affects our children and
    undermines even the best-planned attempts to educate them.  Although it
    manifests itself in what seem to be scattered, annoying incidents in the
    lives of kids, this attitude has recently achieved attention as a malady
    of national concern.
    A second feature finds expression in a strategy of technological change
    characteristic of our dynamic "new economy."  Celebrated as a wonderful
    recipe for prosperity, this strategy is rooted in a general orientation to
    the world that, in its broader dimensions, projects a dubious path for
    social development.
    Perfecting Verbal Assault
    To introduce the phenomenon, I would ask you to notice the bitter sting it
    brings to the lives of many children.  We all know that teasing, taunting
    and bullying have long been problems in childhood and adolescence.  Most
    of us have encountered such nastiness in one way or another; it's
    something young people have always had to get used to, move beyond, and
    eventually outgrow.  But during the past two decades or so, activities
    formerly dismissed as innocuous pestering have undergone a profound
    transformation.  Tearing down someone in public, making them feel bad
    about who they are and what they feel, has intensified and become a
    refined art, one supported by powerful forces in our culture.
    The youngsters I know best are boys, my own children and their friends in
    middle school and high school, who put up with verbal abuse, subtle
    threats and put-downs in school every day.  Some in the group are strong
    enough to withstand the continuous barrage, dishing it back or just
    ignoring the stupid, vicious taunts.  But I've seen a number of boys
    wither under the barrage, fall silent, retreat into computer games, change
    schools, disconnect from all but one or two friends who also feel abused
    by their classmates.
    Teachers in both public and independent schools tell me that the
    atmosphere of negativity in student subcultures, far from being a minor
    annoyance, has become one of the most serious barriers to teaching and
    learning they have to confront each day, filling much of the social space
    in halls and classrooms.  No one seems to know what to do about it.  When
    I suggested to my wife, a counselor at an independent school, that we
    tackle the problem directly at least among the boys and parents who are in
    our close circle of friends -- have meetings where a policy of "no tear
    down" would be discussed -- she said it would not work, that "kids don't
    operate that way."  She's probably right.  But what other solutions are
    available?  There seem to be no ready answers.
    It's clear that kids are busily at work sorting and sifting and
    categorizing:  who's a jock, who's a prep, who's a nerd, who's a goth,
    who's located where in the pecking order.  Generations of teenagers,
    including my own (decades ago), have played this game, sometimes with
    appalling results.  But somehow the persistence, intensity and sheer
    meanness of the process we see today goes much further.  We know that
    Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, two killers at Columbine High School in
    Colorado, saw themselves as retaliating against schoolmates who had
    repeatedly tormented them.  There is, of course, no excuse for their
    murderous acts.  But what surprises me is how frequently I hear boys I
    know staunchly defend Klebold and Harris in words that come close to
    admiration. "Oh, yeah, I know where they were coming from," they observe
    without a hint of irony.  "I have to put up with that stuff too."
    Sports, Politics, Media
    The name I would give this malady that afflicts young people is aggressive
    disrespect.  In today's slang it is known as "dissing," an attitude
    brashly exhibited throughout our society.  It's present in movies,
    television programs, radio talk shows, sports, journalism, and politics.
    In stand-up comedy and sitcoms, the prevalent form of humor is the put-
    down followed by a burst of canned laughter:  insult -- laugh track --
    public embarrassment -- laugh track -- personal barb -- laugh track.  It's
    also common in sports where trash talk and dissing have become essential
    rituals of the game.  One sees it as well in the personal attack ads that
    have become standard fare in election campaigns, a style of propaganda
    that allows candidates on both sides to avoid discussing important public
    issues and to blather on about an opponent's "character" instead.  In
    episodes like the Clinton impeachment and Florida election debacle,
    expressions of contempt for one's opponents have become so central to our
    ways of speaking that it often seems nothing of substance remains.
    In movies and television, of course, the relentless barrage of verbal
    abuse is tied to exhibitions of physical violence, where catharsis is
    achieved by shooting one's enemies, beating them up, or blowing them away.
    The same is true of video games -- Quake, Doom, Half Life, and countless
    others -- where the players participate in simulated gore.  Earlier hopes
    that video games would engage children in more positive, educationally
    enriching activities have proven a risible fantasy.  All the best-selling
    games involve the players in ceaseless episodes of mayhem and slaughter.
    In all the electronic media available to them, our children receive a
    steady diet of social contempt produced by prominent role models
    encouraging aggressive disrespect, disrespect that assumes violence as its
    logical terminus.  To an increasing extent this way of being is what is
    expected of young people, what is held out as "cool" in our society.
    Unlike the "cool" upheld by the beatniks of the 1950s -- existential
    detachment with Zen aspirations -- today's "cool" is simply the meeting
    ground of unreflective nihilism and shopping-mall fashion.
    My point is not that television, video games and other forms of mass media
    "cause" the kinds of violence that crop up so often in American schools.
    It is always difficult to pinpoint specific causes of savagery within the
    complex strands of influence that shape people's behavior.  What I want to
    notice instead are some astonishingly bleak background conditions that
    color the experiences and expectations of childhood in our time.  In ways
    that our nation refuses to confront, the everyday sources of torment now
    undermine prospects for a healthy sense of self, crippling a youngster's
    ability to engage the world in active, hopeful ways.  Struggling with the
    culture of contempt, boys (and many girls as well) learn to "be strong" by
    internalizing a distinctly dreary vision of life's possibilities.
    Destroying to Create
    The mood of aggressive disrespect is also prominent in what appears to be
    an entirely separate realm of human affairs, namely that of business and
    technology, celebrated as a place of lively entrepreneurship, innovation
    and productivity, supposedly the path to a brighter future.  Here we see
    the marriage of capital and technique spawning countless projects that
    will eventually alter how people live and think.
    The economic approach commonly followed in this domain at present is what
    the economist Joseph Schumpeter long ago called "creative destruction."
    As interpreted today, this means that one begins by locating an entity
    with recognized value attached to it, often a value that has existed in a
    particular social setting for a long while.  The challenge is to devise an
    alternative, an effective replacement launched in a new medium, especially
    the dynamic medium of digital communications.
    This strategy presents opportunities for rapid recapitalization and
    reorganization in every corner of economic life.  Markets are captured and
    profits won as digital bits and money flow in new directions at the speed
    of light.  In this process every institution, practice, relationship,
    artifact, and natural entity is now subject to renovation and/or
    replacement.  The fact that an object, activity or institution has
    flourished for decades and embodies deeply felt values is sufficient to
    mark it for liquidation.  In the global marketplace, if an entity cannot
    compete with the alternatives arrayed against it, then it is doomed to
    An example of what I am calling aggressive disrespect is exhibited in
    Daniel Burrus' book, Technotrends.  Burrus argues that if your line
    of work has become what he calls a "cash cow," a reliable source of
    income, you must innovate in ways that replace it with the newest,
    relevant technology.  "Kill your cash cow or someone will do it for you,"
    Burrus advises.  In this way of thinking, for example, the best teachers
    should get out of teaching and into educational software because that is
    where the technotrends are moving.  The prescription:  liquidate all
    sources of value, dismantle, destroy, and re-capitalize.
    An outlook of this sort is coin of the realm in Silicon Valley, Seattle
    and other centers of high-tech panache.  To suggest that an organism,
    artifact, or institution should be acknowledged for what it is, respected
    or even cherished for the good it does, is entirely at odds with this
    sensibility.  Tools, traditions, and whole biological genomes are now
    under scrutiny for the ways in which they might be altered or replaced by
    those with better, profit-seeking plans.
    To ask respect for any person, thing, practice, or institution is
    problematic because, as we all know, respect is something that must be
    earned.  But if one lives in a culture that relishes disrespect for
    anything and everything, then teachable moments about how things earn
    enduring value are few and far between.  Even the earlier sense that there
    was an overall, accumulated residue of scientific, technical and social
    change that could reasonably be called "progress" is no longer a topic of
    interest.  Only those changes predicated on a short-term, rapid turn-over
    of goods are worth considering.  That is why so many people prefer the
    terms "innovation" and "creative destruction" to the outmoded category of
    "progress" these days.
    Theories of science and technology now prominent in the academy tend to
    ratify projects of creative destruction.  In the preferred fashion, all
    things in nature and society are best thought of as recombinant entities,
    "hybrids" of one kind or another.  Humans, for example, have pretty much
    vanished in cultural and political speculation, replaced by "cyborgs,"
    hybrids of biological and artificial parts.  Cloned animals, re-engineered
    species, and robotic devices may be identified as "monsters," but many
    writers greet them as cherished companions within a realm of "contested
    possibilities" that also includes us.  Rather than ask whether or not
    existing creatures, ecosystems, social practices, and institutions have an
    integrity that merits recognition, all such entities are thrown into the
    whirling blenders of deconstruction.  In my view, visions of this kind are
    a perfect match for the corrosive practices of high-tech capitalism,
    regardless of the left-wing postures struck by intellectuals who are
    scripting the new grand narratives.
    What Hope for Change?
    The varieties of aggressive disrespect I've described are clearly
    connected in important ways.  For example, if one wanted a society in
    which students would leave schools highly dissatisfied and disrespectful
    of anything in society and nature, ready to launch change for the sake of
    change itself, then the schools we've got are serving quite well, for they
    operate as laboratories of disrespect, breeding grounds for restless
    innovation without any deeper human purpose.  Students leave the schools,
    reinforced by the beguiling products of our consumer economy, ready for
    the mentality of high-tech enterprise -- the belief that everything that
    exists is simply an opportunity for innovation and profitable
    reconfiguration.  The books, libraries, bookstores, publishers -- throw
    them out and begin anew.  Teachers, classrooms, conventional teaching
    materials -- discard them and start over with online gadgets.
    Here's the prescription for change:  Identify any vocation or profession;
    find a way to re-encode its message; take it to the market; cash in your
    stock options and move on to the next golden opportunity.  This works just
    as well with objects in nature.  Take the genome of a fruit fly (or what
    we're told is its close relative, the human being), uncover its genetic
    map, and get ready to move and shake.  Blend the genes of plants with
    those of unsuspecting animals -- by all means!  Let's see if we can make
    that tobacco plant glow in the dark.
    Among engineers and technical professionals there has long been earnest
    discussion about the ethics that ought to guide professional conduct.
    Over many decades a wide range of moral principles and arguments have
    helped focus reflection on this matter.  But increasingly, it seems to me,
    there is a de facto ethic that guides what a great many people are
    inclined to do in matters of technological change.  It is the ethic of
    "Hell, why not?"  A restlessness and dissatisfaction continually seeks
    opportunities to modify whatever entities seem ripe for transformation and
    recapitalization.  That disposition toward change is far different from
    the one that seeks positive, lasting improvement in society, our relations
    with natural things or in the artificial complex that surrounds us.  No,
    that is simply not what technical intentions are about these days.  Faced
    with choices of profound significance, the first response is: "Hell, why
    It is with considerable grief that I recall the kinds of overt and quiet
    suffering I've witnessed among the youngsters assaulted by the culture of
    disrespect and pressured to join it.  What can be done to help them?  What
    can protect them from the models thrust upon them as people, things and
    ideas are dissed, dismantled, demolished, and discarded?  What can deflect
    them from the work of callous disrespect that awaits them within today's
    hyper-linked, hyperventilating, voracious corporate economy?
    I don't know.  But pondering the torrents of disrespect I've seen drowning
    the spark of childhood recently, I'm reminded of a letter Henry James once
    received from a nephew asking advice on how to succeed.  James offered the
    young man some simple wisdom:
       Three things in human life are important.
       The first is to be kind.
       The second is to be kind.
       And the third is to be kind.
    I wonder:  In a period of history hell-bent on other pursuits, how can the
    virtues of kindness and respect for humans and other beings be taught?
    (This essay originated as a set of informal remarks delivered at a
    consultation sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Spiritual
    Foundations of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, April
    14-15, 2000.  The consultation was supported by the Fetzer Institute.)
    Tech Knowledge Revue is produced at the Chatham Center for Advanced Study,
    339 Bashford Road, North Chatham, NY 12132.  Langdon Winner can be reached
    at:  winner@rpi.edu and at his Web page:  http://www.rpi.edu/~winner .
    Copyright Langdon Winner 2000.  Distributed as part of NetFuture:
    http://www.netfuture.org/ .  You may redistribute this article for
    noncommercial purposes, with this notice attached.
    Goto table of contents
    Where's Your Action Plan?
    Response to:  "Technology, Animals, and People" (NF-114)
    From:  William Bostock Hackett III (center@rain.org)
    Suggestion:  Offer specific positive suggestion as to what a good person
    can do.
    It's like catching more flies with honey when you are positive.
    My heart goes out to your pigs living their lives in restraint but you do
    not offer a course of action.  As I read your material I believe you have
    a strong "negative valence" to your overall message today.  (Can you help
    me see the positive?)  :-)
    If you want to be effective, shouldn't you create some sort of specific
    plan?  Create a step-by-step action-requested plan? -- a Wharton School or
    London School MBA's classic, viable, workable, step-by-step businesslike
    business plan.
    William --
    Actually, the article recommended a specific and highly effective action:
    Buy meat from animals that were raised healthily and humanely.
    But, in general, I sympathize with your concerns.  The best publication I
    know for creating a sense of hope and positive change is Orion Afield;
    I never fail to come away from it with a renewed sense of optimism about
    the amazing ways creative people are putting their lives on the line to
    tackle the environmental and social problems of our day.  (See
    www.orionsociety.org.)  If I had the resources to be like that
    publication, I probably would be.  But, on the topics I deal with, I just
    haven't found a way to do it.  No doubt the limitation is my own.
    At the same time, I'm inclined to defend what I do do.  Most of the
    challenges posed by technology today -- including some extreme ones,
    bearing on the survival of humanity -- are not even recognized by the
    general public.  It is crucial for people to become aware of the dangers
    and risks, the things that are wrong or look like going wrong, if they are
    to wake up to the need for positive change.  What I often find myself
    doing is trying to articulate as clearly as I can the problems most
    urgently needing a first, glimmering recognition from us.
    Furthermore, there's no way this effort of articulation can amount to the
    presentation of a simple, positive "program of action".  The desire for
    such a program all too easily reflects the technological mindset that is
    at the root of so many of our problems.  Something wrong?  Well give us an
    algorithm, a program, that can solve it!  Whereas the real need is
    to transcend the program-solving, algorithmic mentality of technology and
    realize that, in the end, all solutions emerge from what is highest,
    freest, least predictable, least programmatic in ourselves.  There is no
    genuine social problem that we can solve without becoming, to one degree
    or another, different persons.
    This, of course, is the exact opposite of all the advertisements for
    technological "solutions".  The promise is that they will whisk away our
    problems while allowing us to remain comfortably passive.  Making this
    choice between functioning out of the highest part of ourselves or
    yielding passively to the networks of mechanical intelligence cocooning us
    is perhaps the most fundamental "action" demanded of us today.
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                           ANNOUNCEMENTS AND RESOURCES
    Computers and Children: Request for Grant Proposals
    The American Academy of Pediatrics (www.aap.org) and Learning in the Real
    World (www.realworld.org) are inviting grant proposals for research into
    the effects of computers on the physical, intellectual, and emotional
    development of young children.  The announcement, following closely upon
    release of the Alliance for Childhood's pathbreaking report, "Fool's Gold:
    A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood" (NF #111), notes that
       while a market for computer software designed specifically for toddlers
       and young children continues to grow, little is known about the actual
       impact of this new technology on children's developing minds and
       bodies.  Some research has explored computer technology's potential as
       a teaching tool, but there has been no scientific investigation into
       the computer's possible effects on children's gross and visual motor
       skill development.
    Grants will be for up to $50,000 per year, and are intended for
    professors, physicians, and other researchers.  The two sponsoring
    organizations expressed the hope that their initiative will prompt large
    foundations and government agencies to support research in this area.
    The deadline for applications is February 28, 2001.  Awards will be
    announced in March.  For more information, contact Jennifer Stone,
    Manager, Health Education, American Academy of Pediatrics:  tel.
    847-434-7870; email jstone@aap.org.  Or else contact William L. Rukeyser,
    Coordinator, Learning in the Real World:  tel. 530-661-9240; email
    Goto table of contents
                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
    Copyright 2000 by The Nature Institute.  You may redistribute this
    newsletter for noncommercial purposes.  You may also redistribute
    individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this
    paragraph are attached.
    NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not
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    http://netfuture.org/support.html .
    Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:
    To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:
    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #115 :: December 21, 2000
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